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Don't Activate - Integrate!

If you have ever been injured, and had traditional rehab, along the way we are sure you have been told that your pain of dysfunction is due to a weak area. It’s still the most commonly accepted theory behind chronic injury management, that a weak muscle creates dysfunction, by causing another part to overwork. In this typical diagnosis, you are instructed to ‘activate’ the weak area and release the tight areas.

Common examples of this theory are below

  • Your hip flexors are tight and sore, so you need to strengthen your glutes

  • You are hunched in kyphosis and thus need to release your tight pecs, and strengthen weak rhomboids and lower traps.

  • Your back is sore because your core is weak, so you need to activate your TVA

  • You have knee pain, so activate your VMO and glutes

  • Shoulder impingement? You need to activate your rotator cuffs.

  • Your pelvic floor is weak, so perform Kegels to strengthen it

If it really were this simple, there would be a lot less chronic injuries and pain in society!

This theory certainly has more merit than merely treating the site of pain, but in reality, it’s still a zoomed in picture of the injured area, that fails to look at the complexity of the whole. This simple theory of course has healing potential, and it’s something we have practiced in the past for rehab training. The oversimplified view achieves limited results, and unfortunately fails to appreciate that the body is a wonderfully interconnected tensegrity system, with each part working in a synergistic relationship with the rest.

Activation is incomplete

In our experience dysfunction, chronic pain, and compensation type injuries or niggles are a whole body problem. They occur when the system cannot mitigate tension through it’s entirety, which results in local break down. If you have ever pulled a thread in a piece of clothing, you can appreciate how the loose thread can’t simply be fixed (activated) instead the only way to repair the strong fabric, is to re-integrate it with the rest of the weave.

Activation encourages us to hone in on one area, and get it to fire or upregulate. The idea implies that with the right amount of activation of one part, we can restore balance with the millions of other cells, ligaments, fascia, nerves or muscles that are attached! Isolation type activation drills, often decrease integration of the system. Rather than focusing on one part to get stronger, we instead need to look at how to get it to work synergistically with it’s neighbouring tissue (muscles), to share the load.

So for example training strong muscles in the back to fix a kyphotic hunched posture, won’t really make any difference at all if the pelvis isn’t stacked over the feet, and the ribs are posteriorly tilted.

The brain doesn’t consciously activate

Daily movement is subconscious. We are never consciously directing certain body parts to turn on and off. Trying to consciously activate a certain tissue leads to stiffness, tension, and unnecessary stress. Just take the casual (and all to common) core bracing to suck in your belly that happens when you are in your bathers. It’s not comfortable, it’s hard, and it creates a lack of rhythmical movement. Or have you ever tried to activate your core, or your butt (and keep them activated) and walk? For one it’s ridiculously impossible to move well and rhythmically like this, and two it only works while you think of it. The second your focus shifts, your body has relaxed to move subconsciously with no bracing!

Do you think when Roger Federer goes for a low volley that he actually thinks about turning his glutes on, or brace his core whilst his serving? Absolutely not! He moves with rhythm because he has trained his body to move as one super efficient machine!

Repetition is the enemy of the body

The body gets injured with repetition. Repeated exposure to the same force is great for building muscles, but can cost us efficiency in terms of fascial health, and integrated movement. Repeatedly training specific muscles in isolation, often means they are really strong at engaging alone, but less strong when asked to share the load with the rest of the body in a global movement. Repetition is why tennis players get sore shoulders on one side, or why bowlers get sore in their bowling arm. It’s also why we get sore backs from long periods of sitting.

Repeatedly activating a specific muscle won’t help with global and efficient movement. However, it may help increase local proprioception (which is important and we’ll talk about shortly). Loading the area that is struggling in a variety of ways is a better solution, so that the area (and surrounding tissue) can work together to knit strong connections and shared responsibility of force. ‘Muscles that fire together, wire together’, which is how we create smooth, intelligent movement that results in less breakdown.

On and OFF

Mechanical problems and pain arise when the body can’t share load. An ideal healthy body has a symphony of body parts working together in harmony, turning on, and off, at the right time to disperse load, and work together. Our body is a tensegrity system, a word coined to amalgamate the terms tension, and integrity to explain how structures can resist gravity with floating compression members, in a net of continuous tension. Our body is a tensegrity system, with floating bones, amidst a net of connective tissue and muscles

Tensegrity structures (pictured right) share the onus of tension. When there is no rhythmical flow of load, and any one part of a tensegrity structure compromised, the rest of the system adjusts. To take this into movement, when one area stays ON, the rests of the system cannot flow in harmony, and must work around the chronically activated part. For effective load distribution, it’s intelligent and economical to disperse load through as many parts as possible to avoid breakdown of any one part.

Sensory motor amnesia (SMA)

SMA is a term coined by Thomas Hanna to explain patterns of chronic muscular activation patterns that are so ingrained, our body can’t sense or control them. In SMA, the brain ‘forgets’ to turn certain muscles off, leading to ischemic type stuck muscles, that are chronically contracted. Like a chronically squeezed sponge, ischemic muscles hold onto waste products, struggle to get new nutrients and oxygen rich blood flow, and lose sensitivity to the nervous system. After all it is the pump action that moves fluids, and the movement of the surrounding connective tissue that helps communicate with the nervous system.

Increase Proprioception Instead

Proprioception is our ability to sense our body in our environment, and it relates specifically to efficient movement. It’s been speculated recently that proprioception is indeed our 6th sense. The more sensitive our system is the better, and dulled proprioception is like wearing 3 pairs of socks on one foot, and compared to bare skin.

Many of us have areas of our body that we have lost efficient sensation of, and to a degree they are numb. Whether this applies to chronically engaged and tight muscles, or to stuck areas that doesn’t move well and often enough, the result is the same: a loss of feedback and efficiency. If we wear shoes all the time, this can happen to the arches of our feet, or if we sit for long periods, it might happen to the inner thighs and hamstrings which become stuck together.

The good thing about activation, is that it does help increases proprioception. But we would argue that there are better ways to do this like fascial freeing, hands on Rolfing type touch to increases the slide and glide of tissue, integrated movement, subtle small range mobilisers, or even vibration release and training.

Most proprioceptors are located in between fascial and muscular segments, in order to sense shear. This means that parts need to slide and glide around each other for ultimate proprioception. Any technique that unglues stuck segments will dramatically increase feedback, and help the nervous system better up, or downregulate, and engage the rest of the tensegrity net.

How to integrate

The answer is really simple, move the system as a whole, in as many varied ways as possible, to stimulate and enhance as many areas as possible. Wide distribution of forces means that segments can work with local parts, and create continuity. The concept of 4D movement specifies the 4th dimension of movement as the ability of the body to load and unload in sequenced continuity, with efficient rhythm.

This is particularly relevant to enhancing recoil type movement where we load to unload. Recoil is free energy because it’s harnessing the elastic tissue of the body. When we counter load movement (like in plyometric training) we can use stored energy like an elastic band.

Another powerful integration technique, is warding pattern training. Warding patterns attempt to apply body wide tension to the body in a prepositioned state. Warding patterns are used for 3-10 seconds, to help encourage neuromuscular sensitivity, by making muscles turn on, and off at the right time. This is the opposite to a sustained brace or isometric contraction, and the idea is to increases proprioception and global strength.

Check out the video below for some of our fav solutions to integrate movement, and activate the body as a whole!


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